Sunday, July 23, 2017

Teotihuacán: The elite living areas along the Avenue of the Dead

How the Teotihuacanos saw themselves. This greenstone funerary mask is one of many found at Teotihuacán. At one time, the eyes may have been filled with conch or abalone shell, giving the face an uncannily realistic appearance. The mask's full, parted lips and wide, narrow eyes represent a distinct style, recognizable by anyone familiar with this civilization. The Avenue of the Dead, between the Citadel and the Pyramid of the Sun, consists of a succession of long, rectangular plazas, each raised above the one before, leading toward the Pyramid of the Moon. Both sides of the Avenue are lined with small temple platforms and elite residential compounds. In this posting, I'll walk you through this area and show you some artifacts typical of those that would have been used by the elite figures who lived here. For a Google satellite view of this section of the Avenue of the Dead, click here.

Northwest San Juan River Complex

Small patio within the large complex. The view here is to the southeast. The Northwest San Juan River Complex is located along the west side of the Avenue of the Dead, just north of where it crosses the San Juan River. The river is lined by the trees you see at the top of the photo. The complex is laid out following the general design of Teotihuacán itself: north-to-south and east-to-west. The mixture of residences with small temples and other ceremonial areas reflects the nature of a society where religion was interwoven with all aspects of life. For a Google satellite view of this complex, click here.

Almena showing water droplets. The Spanish word almena translates as "battlement". However, in the pre-hispanic context, almenas were decorative features that lined the cornices of buildings. They often contained symbolic elements, such as these water droplets. Water was crucial to all aspects of pre-hispanic life, especially for growing the staple food, maiz (corn). The Northwest San Juan Complex appears to have been the site of festivities relating to the rain or storm god Tlaloc and other deities related to agriculture.

The remains of a plastered wall still show signs of red paint. The insides of elite dwellings were plastered with lime and then painted, with red being one of the most popular colors. The red paint most often used was specular hematite, which includes tiny particles of mica to add a muted sparkle. Sometimes the walls were covered with murals containing religious themes. Archeologists believe that the Northwest Complex was built between 150-200 AD, during the Miccaotli Phase when the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon were being constructed.

Remarkably realistic bust of a male Teotihuacano. Again, we see the lips and eyes that make this style so distinct. However, a non-Teotihuacán influence may also be present here. Only a few pre-hispanic civilizations ever mastered the technique of sculpture-in-the-round. Arguably, none were better at this than the Maya. Teotihuacán had strong trading links with the Maya world and there was a Maya presence within the city itself. The purpose of this sculpture is not clear, but it may have been used as a censer to burn copal incense.

Raised platform showing Teotihuacán's signature talud y tablero style. Another famously recognizable Teotihuacán style is called talud y tablero, seen on the sides of the platform above. This style was expressed as a vertical, recessed, rectangular space (the tablero), paired with a sloping wall below (the talud). You will find these features everywhere in Teohuacán. They can also be found in every place where Teotihuacán's influence reached, even as far away as the ancient city of Tikal in northern Guatemala. The pyramidal structure seen in the upper left, in the distance, is the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun.

Water pot, drinking cup, and small clay face. The clay pot is typical of those used to store water in residential areas. The cup may have been used to dip water from a pot like this. The small face appears to have been mass-produced in a Teotihuacán workshop by artisans using a mold. Little clay faces like this were manufactured and sold to be used as ritual offerings.

This sunken space within the complex may have been a cistern. I found several similar spaces within the complex. None of them had steps leading down inside, so they wouldn't have been used as living areas. The most likely purpose would have been to store water. Teotihuacán's builders created a sophisticated system of channels and drains to capture and channel rain runoff. The cistern may have been kept full in this way. Clay water pots, like the one seen previously, would have been filled here to supply the residents living in the immediate area.  The remains of two columns stand in front of the room on the left. These appear to have supported a roof which once shaded a small terrace overlooking the water pool.

Plaza C

This is the largest of the Avenue of the Dead's several plazas. The surface covers 7595 sq m (8306 sq yd). In the center is the stone base for a temple once made of perishable materials, but long since disappeared. There are three platforms on the west (right) side. On the east (left) side, there are four, including one that is a small pyramid. The size of the plaza, the central temple/altar, and the number of temples surrounding it, all clearly indicate an important ceremonial space. I took this shot from atop the staircase at the north end of Plaza C, looking toward the south.

Small ceramic pot used for offerings. The pot has been dated to the period between 250-450 AD, called the Tlamimiolpa Phase. During this time, the Citadel was constructed and Teotihuacán expanded its influence throughout Mesoamerica, both by peaceful trade and conquest.

Temple platform on the west side of Plaza C. The Avenue of the Dead is lined with temple platforms like this for its entire length between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Citadel. Various reasons have been proposed for this large number of roughly similar structures. One theory relates to Teotihuacán's ethnic makeup. It was a multi-cultural society, with enclaves of Maya, Zapotecs and other groups. At least some of these structures may have been devoted to gods particular to those groups.

Plaza B

Plaza B, the next in the string, has no central temple or altar. The view here is from the southern end of the plaza, looking north. The Pyramid of the Sun can be seen in the top center. In the upper left, at the base of the mountain, you can just make out the Pyramid of the Moon. In addition to lacking a central altar or temple, this plaza differs in other ways from those to its north and south. First, Plaza B is the smallest of the plazas, measuring 3723 sq m (4072 sq yd). Second, it is bordered with what appear to be residential spaces, rather than temples and pyramids. Plaza B is reached by climbing the broad staircase that forms the north end of Plaza C.

Ball player, suited up for a game. He is bare-chested and wears a short, skirt-like garment around his hips. The ball game could be rough, particularly if a player was hit in an unprotected part of his body by the heavy, hard-rubber ball. Injuries were common and death not unknown. The player's waist and hips are protected by heavy leather, as are his lower legs. Mysteriously, no ball courts have ever been found at Teotihuacán, unlike virtually every other important Mesoamerican city. Objects like this statue have been found, however, as well as stone markers for the ball game and other items related to it. It strikes me that Plaza B would be an excellent location for games. Its size would allow considerable range for the players and the temples and staircases that surround it would be perfect seats for spectators.

The north end of Plaza B is spanned by another broad staircase. Beyond it is Plaza A, followed by two additional plazas, and then the Plaza del Sol in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. Rather than continuing on to the north, Carole and I decided to explore the West Plaza, which occupies the area just west of Plaza B. We left the northern plazas, with their additional temples and pyramids for another visit.

The West Plaza

The West Plaza is reached by way of an enclosed walkway. The steel grid path and chains prevent damage to the surrounding structures but, unfortunately, also obstruct close inspection of the residential dwellings lining each side. According to a nearby sign, this small plaza is "the finest example of space distribution in Teotihuacán." It includes a central altar with temples on three sides. The largest temple (seen in the background) faces across the altar to the open side and the entrance pathway. This physical arrangement has an architectural history that dates back to the very beginnings of urbanization at Teotihuacán. The approach to the West Plaza would have been along this street, lined on both sides by columns supporting covered terraces and behind them sumptuous residences. The patches of white on either side of the path are the remains of lime-based stucco pavement that once covered the area.

Residential structures line the west side of Plaza B.  Habitations extend north and south of the entrance walkway of the West Plaza. Above is a corridor that runs parallel to Plaza B, and perpendicular to the entrance walkway, connecting the rooms and apartments. Note the remains of the plaster on the walls in the foreground, along with patches of the red paint that once covered them. These were the residences of important individuals and their families.

A priest/noble of TeotihuacánArcheologists label figures like this "high-status individuals." Their elaborate head dresses and jewelry indicate authority and wealth. Like many pre-hispanic societies, Teotihuacán was a theocracy, run by a priestly ruling class. The power of these people was based in their deep knowledge of the cyclical movements of celestial bodies. They used this knowledge to calculate the change of seasons and to predict the coming of the rains and the correct times for planting and harvesting. The power of prediction provided them with awesome authority, because it positioned them as intermediaries between the common people and the gods. This ensured their wealth and political position. The knowledge that underpinned of all this was closely held within the families of the elite class. They perpetuated their rule by passing it on generationally and by placing restrictions on who had access to the most important rites and ceremonies related to the celestial movements. This was why there were walls surrounding the Pyramid of the Sun and the Citadel.

One of the interior patios contains a household altar. The altar can be seen in the background, between two pillars. Altars like this were used to worship family deities. However, they were also employed for other purposes.

Family altar containing a buried child. The 12 to 14 year old youth was buried in a bent posture within this altar. This was not a sacrifice, but the burial of a family member who died from disease or accident. Burials like this were common practice. It was also common to take the bones of family members and shape them into buttons, combs, spatulas, and many other small tools, all for daily use. Special tools were used to deflesh the relative's body soon after death, before the bones became too brittle. While all this seems macabre and even disrespectful to modern sensibilities, these practices appear to have been a way to maintain a connection with those who had passed into the afterlife.

The West Plaza altar and two of the three temples. The altar is square and uses the talud y tablero style on its sides. The main temple is in the upper right of the photo. The temple on the left is matched by its twin, facing it across the plaza, but out of sight in the photo. The focus of all three temples is the central altar, apparently the site of important ceremonies. However, there is more here than meets the eye. During the early Classic period (150-250 AD), known as the Miccaotli Phase, the plaza's level was several feet lower. Excavations have shown that the stairs of the main temple extend below the current level of the plaza, and the balustrades on either side of the stairs end in dramatic snake heads.

Snake head at the bottom of the left balustrade. Because they were below ground for most of the last 1,800 years, the snake heads have remained remarkably intact.The forked tongue extends down to the original level of the plaza. The plaza's current level is less than 1 m (3 ft) above the snake's head. The features are remarkably sharp and clean and some of the paint which once covered the head can still be seen. It is likely that the eyes were filled with obsidian (volcanic glass) at one time, making them glitter in the sun and in firelight. The stairs themselves were once painted with green circles, outlined in black, over a red background. Such circles are called chachihuites (jewels) and were used to represent water or precious objects such as jade. Archeologists left a hole in the surface of the plaza so that visitors can see the lower level with its snake heads.

Jaguar head on the right side balustrade at the current level of the plaza. This one shows much more wear, due to its long exposure to the elements. This above-ground head used to be that of a snake like the ones that were buried. However, the modification of the plaza during the later Tlalmimilolpa Phase (250-450 AD) included refashioning the snake heads at this level into jaguars. Significantly, the change in the plaza and the snake heads coincided with the building of the Citadel and the radical modification of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents. The serpent heads on the pyramid were destroyed or covered over by the addition of the Adosado Platform. Apparently something happened in which serpents were out and jaguars were in. See my posting on the Citadel for more on this.

Elaborate ceramic censer used in elite ceremonies and rituals. A human head, adorned with large ear spools, peers out from the middle. Atop the head is an incredibly elaborate head dress, which includes the beaked heads of birds on either side. I have seen very similar censers in various museums displaying Teotihuacán artifacts. The details differ somewhat, but the general design is the same. Apparently this type of censer was mass produced in pieces which were then assembled. Only the wealthiest and most elite people could afford a censer like this.

The West Plaza's left temple. It is likely that a perishable structure once existed on the temple's top level. Before the plaza was modified and raised, the left and right temples each had three stepped levels. The lowest levels are now below the floor of the plaza. The two levels shown above are in the talud y tablero style. The vertical panels of the tablero contain the remains of a low-relief sculpture of a figure wearing a large head dress containing birds and snakes. The figure, which is duplicated on several of the plaza's temples, carries in its hands budding shoots and flaming bundles. There is some dispute about the identity. Most likely, it is the storm god (Tlaloc) and, also very likely, he was the deity worshipped at the West Plaza.

Beautiful painted pot with tripod feet, reconstructed from fragments. Pots such as this had many functions. One of these was to receive the freshly extracted heart of a sacrifice victim. While human sacrifice at Teotihuacán was not practiced on the industrial scale of the Aztecs, it was not at all uncommon. Human blood was viewed as one of the essential substances of the universe. Presenting a fresh, bloody heart to a deity such as the Storm God was considered be especially pleasing to him.

This concludes my posting. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. If so, please leave any questions or thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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